Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves to talk about players making a big jump from their first season in the NFL to their second season as pros.
With organized team activities starting for second-year players on Tuesday, that process will begin for the members of the Steelers rookie class of 2020.
The class is already well regarded, getting an ‘A’ in a one year later re-grade from Pro Football Focus after second-round pick Chase Claypool stepped into a major role in the offense and third-rounder Alex Highsmith and fourth-rounder Kevin Dotson both played well when forced into the lineup as rookies due to injuries
All three players are in line for starting roles in 2021, and while it is certainly possible, and probably even likely, that all three players will play better in 2021 than they did in 2020, that’s not typically the type of Year 1 to Year 2 improvement Tomlin talks about.
“I’m always really consistent about what I expect from a second-year player,” Tomlin said back in 2018. “I expect to see a significant jump. And it’s reasonable to expect that. They understand the culture that we build here, what is expected from them and how they fit in it. All that knowledge should add to fluid play and contributions.”
So which players, outside of those big three returning rookies, can Tomlin reasonably expect that big jump from in 2021?
CB James Pierre
Perhaps no player on the Pittsburgh roster will be given a greater chance to show improvement from 2020 to 2021 than Pierre, who has moved from unheralded undrafted free agent signing to the team’s presumptive starting Nickel cornerback in a little over a year.
It was Miami UDFA Trajan Bandy that most outside observers liked the most when he signed with the Steelers coming out of the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead, Bandy was released after training camp and Pierre, from FAU, earned a roster spot.
By the end of the season, he’d turned that roster spot into playing time, passing Justin Layne on the depth chart as the Steelers’ fifth cornerback and playing in 27 snaps of defense before the end of the regular season.
That progression alone showed a lot of promise, but as the team’s starting Nickel, Pierre is currently in line to earn more snaps in each game in 2021 than he did in all of 2020.
It’s hard to make too much of such a small sample size, but Pierre certainly looked like he belonged in his short window of opportunity last season. The biggest challenge for him will be translating that to consistent results throughout at 17-game season and responding once NFL opponents get a better look at his tendencies on film.
DT Carlos Davis
The Steelers bring back their entire defensive line from 2020, with starters Tyson Alualu, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt joined by backups Isaiah Buggs, Davis, Henry Mondeaux and Chris Wormley. Fifth-round pick Isaiahh Loudermilk was also added to the mix.
When healthy, the Steelers were already scratching at least one of their defensive line group on game days at the end of the last season, with Buggs watching the playoff game from the press box while Davis, Mondeaux and Wormley served as backups.
The addition of the undersized Loudermilk will make the backup decision at end more complicated, but it seems that Davis has secured himself a role as the only true nose tackle on the team. Alualu plays nose in the 3-4, but is a converted end and Wormley is more a 4-3 tackle that can play either spot in the Steelers’ scheme, but doesn’t seem perfectly suited to either.
Instead, Davis is the sole man on the roster that comfortably projects as a backup 3-4 nose tackle, and with Alualu at age 34 and just signing a two-year contract, that could be a role Davis inherits in 2023, if he shows the kind of second-year development Tomlin is looking for.
S Antoine Brooks Jr.
Brooks is another player that is going to have a much greater opportunity in 2021 than he did as a rookie, when he spent most of the season as the team’s fifth safety and a healthy scratch.
But 2020 backups Sean Davis and Jordan Dangerfield are not back with the team, giving Brooks a ton of opportunity to make a splash behind starters Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
He won’t be alone there, as 2021 seventh-round pick Tre Norwood, free agent signing Arthur Maulet, undrafted free agents Donovan Stiner and Lamont Wade and even linebackers Marcus Allen and Miles Killebrew could compete for playing time at the position.
Brooks didn’t show much as a rookie after being the Steelers’ sixth-round pick a year ago, but he won’t have any more established backups ahead of him this summer.
RB Anthony McFarland Jr.
McFarland’s first season with the Steelers was underwhelming, as the first of the Steelers’ two fourth-round picks earned just 33 carries in his first season and averaged 3.4 yards per rushing attempt, well behind the production level of starter James Conner.
As a speedy back at Maryland, McFarland also projected to be involved in the passing game, but was targeted just nine times by Ben Roethlisberger last year for six catches and 54 yards. Pass protection issues were some of the cause, as McFarland led all Pittsburgh backs with a 9.0 yards per catch average.
The Steelers made a change at the top of the running back depth chart, losing Conner in free agency and replacing him with first-round pick Najee Harris.
But for McFarland, that matters less than establishing himself as the team’s most reliable change-of-pace option by carving more playing time away from the likes Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and free agent addition Kalen Ballage.
It will take improvement in both ball carrying and pass protection for him to be able to do so, though a reunion with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who also coached McFarland at Maryland, could help.